What Motivates Your Customers' Behavior?

NICOLA WATTS on 08 September, 2017 at 10:09


  • We rarely make rational choices in our lives and in our purchases! No one theory explains motivation. Seven theories try to explain why we do the things we do Instinct, Incentive, Drive, Arousal, Humanistic, Expectancy and Self-determination.
  • Motivations are classified as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic ones are driven by internal gratification, extrinsic by external rewards such as money or praise.
  • For cognitive tasks, the higher the external reward the poorer the performance. The carrot and the stick approach rarely works.

Why do we do the things we do? What is it exactly that drives our actions? What do we really know about our own motives, and how motivation works? There are many, many different reasons why we do things, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, there’s no one theory that explains motivation. But by understanding the key concepts behind the seven most prevalent, you should gain a better understanding into not only what motivates you but what motivates your teams and customers, too.

So, what is motivation, exactly? It’s derived from the Latin word “movere” which means to move. It’s the driving force within us that impels us into action to achieve a desired goal. This driving force is in turn due to an unfulfilled need or desire within us that produces a state of tension that can only be resolved on reaching our goal. It’s what causes us to act, and is frequently used to describe why we do something. The conscious and unconscious needs that drive our behavior and explain what we do. It’s what makes us want to accomplish a particular goal or drives us to buy particular products or services. Simplistically, it’s what moves us to feel enthusiastic about what we’re doing.

It’s a process. Our motives are cyclical in nature. We have a need, which produces a drive or a state of tension that motivates us to reduce the tension, by triggering an action, which leads to the goal of alleviating the need and receiving a reward when the goal is reached. Once we’ve got our reward, the need is satiated until it pops again and the pattern is repeated. We can’t observe it directly, but we can infer it from observing goal-directed behavior or through verbalizations.

What motivates you? More than you think, according to Dan Ariely’s new book, “Payoff.” Credit: Simon & Schuster


But, we all know it’s not quite as simple as all that!  We’re complex creatures with many different needs: innate physiological ones that tend to be instinctive, such as thirst and hunger, and psychological ones that tend to be learned in response to our culture or environment, such as the need to be recognised, to be loved or to feel a sense of accomplishment. At varying times these are both conscious and unconscious in nature.

To further complicate things, a desire to accomplish something is not always sufficient motivation on its own. Achieving your goals requires activation, persistence and intensity of effort. Think of the willpower involved in achieving your New Year resolutions!

Motivations are classified as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic ones arise from within us and refer to engaging in behaviors that are driven by internal rewards or are personally rewarding, such as:

  • doing something simply because we enjoy it, like gardening or reading a book.
  • because it’s naturally satisfying such as doing a complicated crossword puzzle.
  • it provides a sense of meaning, such as volunteering.
  • it gives us a sense of accomplishment, such as when you see that your work is achieving something positive or you’ve become more skilled at a task.

Extrinsic motivation arises from outside of us and refers to behaviors that are motivated by the possibility of earning an external reward such as money, fame, grades, trophies, praise, or buying status symbol products, or to avoid punishment or an adverse outcome. People will continue to perform actions for extrinsic rewards even if the task itself is not rewarding. The reward you receive for finishing the task is sufficient motivation!

Which is the most effective in driving behavior? Remember, we’re not terribly rational. Offering external rewards such as a paycheck, loyalty points, air miles, discounts do work. They can all increase motivation. But, research studies have shown over and over again that offering excessive rewards can lead to decreased intrinsic motivation or personal gratification – the overjustification effect. Several theories exist as to why this happens. One theory is that people focus more on the reward than their own enjoyment and then associate the task with the reward and lose sight of their original interest. Others feel coerced and that the reward is a form of bribery, or that the activity is now work, rather than fun.

A classic experiment by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett demonstrated this effect with children. Children who were rewarded for drawing with felt tip pens after they had already expressed interest in playing with them became significantly less interested in doing so after being externally rewarded.

Economists in a combined MIT, University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon research study funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank took it even further. They gave a group of students a set of mental and physical challenges such as memorising strings of digits, solving word puzzles or spatial puzzles, and throwing a ball through a hoop. They then incentivised their performance by giving them three levels of monetary rewards. For simple tasks that used only mechanical skills, the rewards worked as expected – the higher the reward, the better the performance. But once a task required basic cognitive skills, the reverse happened – the higher reward led to poorer performance. They then replicated the test in Madurai in rural India, and the results were the same. This particularly test has been replicated many times and the results remain consistent.

In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink outlines seven deadly flaws to the carrot and stick way of motivating people: “It can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior, become addictive and can foster short-term thinking.”

The good news is that researchers have found that unexpected external rewards typically don’t decrease intrinsic motivation. Praise can improve intrinsic motivation, but intrinsic motivation will decrease if external rewards are provided continuously or after only completing minimal work!

There is no single theory to explain motivation. Each theory adds one piece to the jigsaw that tries to explain what drives us to do what we do.

  1. Instinct theory – motivation is primarily biological, based driven by our basic instincts.
  2. Incentive theory – motivation is driven by a desire for a reward or for reinforcement.
  3. Drive theory – motivation to decrease the internal tension caused by an unmet need.
  4. Arousal theory – motivation to either increase or decrease levels of arousal to maintain our own individual optimal level of physiological arousal.
  5. Humanistic theory – motivation to fulfill our own individual potential exemplified by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
  6. Expectancy theory – motivation is led by how likely we predict a positive outcome.
  7. Self-determination theory – motivation is driven by three innate psychological needs: competence or mastery, connectedness or a sense of belonging, and autonomy.

Genuinely understanding the potential motivations for why your customer buys your brand enables you to use the most appropriate levers to trigger their purchase. And understanding your own potential motivations for particular tasks will just make life far more enjoyable. Perhaps it’s time to understand both?

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